Baylor University research subjects have been hard at work for the past month getting paid to sleep at the newly opened Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory in downtown Waco.
Michael Scullin, director of the new lab, is studying how sleep quality changes as people age, and that work requires subjects willing to spend three nights each in one of the lab’s bedrooms.
They sleep attached to electrodes that monitor their brain activity and eye and face movement, offering insight into the quality of their sleep.
Subjects earn $50 for each night, but the opportunity to contribute to science has been the study’s best draw for participants, Scullin said.
Sleep quality affects aspects of people’s lives from mood and personal relationships to cognitive function, memory, general health and work performance, Scullin said.
Past studies have shown that sleep quality has a direct relationship with bickering in married couples.
“That happens a lot more often after a night of poor sleep than after a night of good sleep,” Scullin said.
The new lab is the first at Baylor to focus specifically on sleep physiology, and Scullin already is talking with another psychology professor about potential for collaboration on ongoing research, he said.
When subjects come into the lab prepared for a hard night of work sleeping, they are usually concerned they won’t be able to get to sleep.
A more common issue is having a subject start to nod off during the half-hour or so it takes to attach electrodes and other monitoring equipment, said Claudina Tami, a neuroscience junior and research assistant.
Tami welcomes subjects into the lab by marking standard points on their head in red wax pencil, then measuring out proportions to place gold electrodes that pick up minute electrical signals indicating brain activity.
A monitor stays overnight to keep an eye on the signals coming out of the lab’s three bedrooms.
The lab plays spa music, gives subjects activities to do during the potentially uncomfortable process of attaching between six and 20 electrodes, and does its best to make the setting pleasant, Scullin said. There is even a miniature fountain in the waiting room.
“We try to make things as comfortable as possible, and the little touches really seem to help,” Scullin said.
Ultimately, a college student in a dark room with a comfy place to lie down usually has no trouble getting to sleep, he said.
About 30 college-age subjects have participated so far in the ongoing study, and the lab is going to start work soon monitoring older age groups.
An article Scullin published in January, soon after he got to Baylor, compiled research connecting declining memory in older people to shorter periods of slow-wave sleep during the night.
Certain areas of the brain actually ramp up their activity during sleep, Scullin said.
Two areas in particular, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, show increased activity and interaction during slow-wave sleep, a deep-sleep state when people are difficult to wake up because their senses shut down.
Researchers think this brain activity is important for stabilizing recently formed memories, Scullin said.
Scullin has reached out to a couple of church groups and nonprofit organizations to talk about the importance of sleep and solicit potential subjects in the older age groups, he said.
So far, he has found a service-oriented community eager to contribute.